Year One of the Tony Granato Experience was an unmitigated success.
A season after the Badgers managed just eight victories, Wisconsin won 20 games in 2016-17, good enough for second in the Big Ten. The Badgers finished the season ranked 17th in the country and just missed the NCAA tournament after a double-overtime loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament final.
There were individual accolades to be had in addition to the team’s success. Granato won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award and forward Trent Frederic brought home Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Scoring was way up in Granato’s more wide-open system. Wisconsin finished ninth in the nation in goals per game (3.39), just a year after averaging only 2.66 in former coach Mike Eaves’s final season.
The Badgers made hay on the power play, converting 21.47 percent. The penalty kill was not bad either, as Wisconsin just missed the top 10 in the country, killing at a 84.5 percent clip.
As the style and quality of play improved, so did fan interest. Wisconsin finished 2016-17 second in the country in total attendance with 182,839 fans coming through the turnstiles, compared with 159,284 in 2015-16 (a difference of over 1,300 fans per game).
Though it showed improvement throughout the season, the defense and goaltending looked rough at times last year. Wisconsin gave up 3.28 goals per game, second-worst in the Big Ten behind Michigan State.
Coming into 2017-18, Wisconsin’s program looks the strongest it’s been since 2013-14. Though the Badgers lost some top-line talent, most notably sophomore captain Luke Kunin to the NHL, Wisconsin returns a large number of seniors and juniors who saw significant ice time last season.
Senior Cameron Hughes (seven goals and a team-high 25 assists in 2016-17) will serve as captain. For the first time since 2012-13, Wisconsin will have four assistant captains: senior forward Ryan Wagner (nine goals, 19 assists in 2016-17), senior defenseman Jake Linhart (six goals, 17 assists), junior forward Seamus Malone (10 goals, 19 assists), and sophomore forward Trent Frederic (15 goals and 18 assists). Both Hughes and Frederic were named to the Big Ten preseason watch list.
The returning talent is bolstered by a talented recruiting class. Four of seven incoming freshmen were selected in the NHL Entry Draft in June, including three defensemen led by thumper Tyler Inamoto. Expect Inamoto, along with fellow freshman blueliners Wyatt Kalynuk and Josh Ess, to develop under associate head coach (and defenseman-whisperer) Mark Osiecki.
Perhaps the most important new face is goaltender Kyle Hayton, who joined Wisconsin on a graduate transfer. Last year’s Ken Dryden Award winner as the ECAC goaltender of the year at St. Lawrence, Hayton was selected for the Big Ten preseason watch list and has the chance to be the most impactful grad transfer for a Wisconsin program since Russell Wilson.
With Hayton looking to receive the lion’s share of the minutes in net and sophomore Jack Berry (11 wins, 2.66 GAA, .898 SV%) emerging last season, former starting goaltender Matt Jurusik departed the program for the USHL. Jurusik battled injuries all last season, playing in 17 games and going 9–7–0 with a 3.70 GAA and .882 SV%.
Jurusik was not the only notable departure. Kunin, the first sophomore captain at Wisconsin in over 20 years, signed his tender with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, departing the program after two seasons. Kunin led the team in goals (22) and points (38), averaging over a point per game. A four-player senior class led by assistant captain Grant Besse (28 points) and top-four defenseman Corbin McGuire (14 points) graduated.
Wisconsin may be deeper and more experienced this year, but the road may be tougher in the Big Ten. The Badgers gained a new conference rival as 2016-17 Frozen Four participant Notre Dame joined the conference as an associate member in hockey. The Irish were projected to finish second in the conference in the preseason coaches poll. Wisconsin was predicted to finish third.
A new conference foe is not the only challenge the Badgers will face this season. Granato was named the U.S. men’s national hockey team coach for the 2018 Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Granato is expected to miss a week in November and at least four games at the end of the Big Ten season, including a home series with Minnesota and a road series against Ohio State at the close of conference play.
The Chicago Blackhawks hired former associate head coach Don Granato as an assistant coach. Wisconsin wasted little time replacing him with another talented coach, hiring Ohio State associate head coach and former Badgers captain Mark Strobel.
Hockey has long been a marquee program for Wisconsin. Under Eaves, the talent and on-ice product had eroded, but the Granato (and Osiecki/Don Granato) hirings were a home run.
While the Badgers may not have anyone with a ceiling as high as Kunin on the current roster, the team is certainly deeper than it has been in the past few seasons. With Granato preaching an entertaining offensive style and Osiecki getting another year with the defensemen, the Badgers may be able to make up the loss of Kunin with several talented lines.
The addition of Hayton helps immensely as goaltending was a hit-or-miss proposition in 2016-17. If he can solidify things in net, Wisconsin could be a dark-horse tournament team.
Things better gel early on, because the schedule gets challenging quickly. Ohio State comes to town the second week of the season for an early Big Ten test. The Badgers travel to Boston College in mid-October and get Hayton’s former team St. Lawrence at the Kohl Center at the end of the month. Non-conference play closes with an always-game North Dakota.
The Badgers open the season on Oct. 1 against Michigan Tech at the Kohl Center. Puck drops at 2 p.m. and games can be heard on 1310 WIBA and streaming on the iHeartRadio app.